Stomping the Streets - Westonbirt Arboretum

The National Arboretum, on the outskirts of Bath, is home to one of the most incredible tree gardens in the world. A collection of over 3,000 different trees and shrub species, many of which are rare or endangered in their native lands, fill this beautiful site which covers over six hundred acres in an area of outstanding natural beauty. The most remarkable thing is that more than 40% of Bristolians have never even visited this site and yet it sits on our doorstep.

Robert Stayner Holford (1808 - 1892), the arboretum’s original creator, inherited the estate from his father in 1839. Owning a gentleman’s garden made him both extremely wealthy and highly fashionable and so he set about swanking the estate up by building formal gardens and importing tree species from the far corners of the British Empire by calling on the help of David Douglas, a prolific botanist and explorer of the time. Robert had big plans!

His passion was to create ‘picturesque’ landscapes, as advocated by William Gilpin. It seems likely that Robert, in keeping with wealthy estate owners of his day, created the arboretum for pleasure and as testament to his taste and wealth rather than a celebration of botanic diversity, although he appears to have achieved both quite easily. The site itself is spectacular and at differing times of the year takes on wholly different personalities, reflecting the moods of the changing seasons. Robert was inspired by the incredible beauty in nature; colour was his passion and he had a keen and trained eye.

Robert passed the estate onto his son George who left no heir when he died in 1926 so the estate passed to his nephew, the 4th Earl of Morley. In 1927 the mansion was sold and became a girls’ school and the estate was split up. The 4th Earl died in 1951 and Westonbirt Arboretum passed to his brother. No-one seemed to have the passion of Robert though and although a few steps were made in the right direction, the war changed everything and Westonbirt was due to change hands for the final time.

Westonbirt was forgotten during World War 2, the estate having been split up and subsequently laid to ruin and so the Forestry Commission took it over, taking up the huge task of making it safe for the public to enjoy its beauty for the first time.

From its beginnings as a rich man’s flight of fancy, the Arboretum now revolves around the unique collection of trees and shrubs; it has become a fundamental resource for conservation, recreation and most importantly education, with over 350,000 visitors a year enjoying its beauty and tranquility. Westonbirt serves not only as an amazing site to appreciate the wondrous display of nature, it is a phenomenal location to go and listen to a great live music event. The pick of the bunch this summer includes Jools Holland and The Zutons. Don’t be part of the 40% who have never bothered to visit such an important site considering we live on its doorstep!

Faye Westrop

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